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Jim Cooper ever needed a cigarette, he needs one now. Leaning back in his desk chair, he takes off his large, square, wire-rimmed glasses and rubs his eyes. His deep-set wrinkles dig even farther into his leathery skin. Today's the kind of day that makes being a mine operator one of the most trying careers a man could want. Having been around coal mines for 35 years, Cooper ought to know. He's been with Oxbow Mining's Elk Creek Mine only since 2000, but he's been pulling coal out of Colorado's Western Slope since 1979.
The mine burrows into the western side of McClure Pass, looming darkly over the old mining town of Somerset. Some might say the mountain of freshly mined coal tarnishes the otherwise scenic valley along Colorado Highway 133. But the mound of shiny black rock is somehow beautiful in its own right, almost striking in the same way as lightning or fire or the blue glow from an electrical outlet—beautiful like any kind of pure energy.